Written in feathers: failure to safe our sage grouse

Idaho Mountain Express
January 5, 2015

The future of the West may be written in feathers.

When Congress and President Barack Obama approved the 2015 omnibus funding bill in the year-end rush to keep the federal government open, they may have issued the death warrant for the greater sage grouse.

A rider in the bill, which had absolutely nothing to do with keeping the government running and everything to do with lawmakers paying back influential donors and constituents, prevents the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service from issuing rules to place sage grouse on the endangered species list. The agency was facing a court-ordered deadline of September 2015 to decide if the grouse would be placed on the endangered species list.

Some people say the rider is just a delay to make sure federal agencies have time to finish a recovery plan. We doubt it.

Does anyone besides a few benighted environmentalists care about a plump, puff-breasted bird that depends on Idaho’s sagebrush steppes to survive? Moreover, why should anyone care given that the declining numbers of birds are simply getting in the way of oil and gas drilling, grazing, wind and solar power generation projects and airports? They are costing a lot of money to study and driving a lot of politicians crazy with their neediness and desire for protective sage canopies for themselves and their chicks, food and mating grounds where they can flirt, posture, dance and belt out a booming bass line in nature’s reproductive chorus.

Sage grouse, a true native of the West, can’t hop a jet for Washington, D.C., can’t make anyone rich, can’t buy lobbyists or politicians, and can’t deliver up domestic oil or gas to put pressure on oil-producing nations of the Middle East. They can’t bring the romance of West to bear on urban lawmakers by appearing in sweat-stained cowboy hats and roper boots.

What they can do is tell us where our common habitat is headed and perhaps foretell our own future if things don’t change. But the sage grouse can only tell us this if we look closely and listen. This will be helpful only if we act intelligently, boldly and soon to protect what sustains those with feathers and those without.

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